Sarastro, the wise priest of Isis, has taken Pamina to the temple for the humane purpose of releasing her from the influence of her mother, the Queen of the Night. The queen induces the young Prince Tamino to go in search of her daughter and free her from the power of Sarastro; Tamino accomplishes his end, but becomes the disciple of Sarastro, whose mildness and wisdom he has learned to admire. The prince and Pamina are united.
Tamino recovers, and sees before him Papageno, arrayed entirely in the plumage of birds. (Humorous aria, Papageno: “I am the bird catcher.”) This strange being explains to Tamino that the Queen of the Night is near and boasts that he himself has killed the serpent, but the three ladies punish his lie by placing a padlock over his mouth. They show to the prince a miniature of a young maiden, upon which he gazes in ecstasy. (Aria: “This picture is wondrously beautiful.”)
The Queen of the Night now appears, demanding that Tamino shall free her daughter, the original of the picture, from the hands of Sarastro. (Recitative and aria: “To misfortune am I born.”) The ladies give Tamino a magic flute, remove the padlock from Papageno and present him with a chime of bells. Papageno accompanies Tamino, and they set forth, guided by three boys. They escape all danger by the use of the magic instruments. (Quintet.)
Change of scene (this scene forms Act II when the opera is divided into three acts): A room in Sarastro’s palace.
Pamina is dragged in by the Moor Monostatos, who is persecuting her. Papageno arrives and announces to her that her mother has sent Tamino to her aid. Monostatos is terrified by Papageno’s strange appearance and takes to flight. (Duet, Monostatos, Pamina: “Dear dove, enter”; Appearance of Papageno and duet with Pamina: “Men who love feel."
Change of scene: Grove and entrance to the temples.
The three boys lead in the prince. (“This road leads to your destination.”) As Tamino reaches the temple he is denied entrance at two of the doors, but at the third a priest appears, who reveals to him the noble character of Sarastro. (“Where will you go, rash stranger?”) When Papageno appears with Pamina all three are about to escape, but are prevented by Monostatos. (“Ha, I have caught you.”) Sarastro enters. (Chorus: “Long live Sarastro.”) Pamina falls at his feet and confesses that she was trying to escape because the Moor had demanded her love. Sarastro receives her kindly and tells her that he will not force her inclinations, but cannot give her freedom. He punishes the Moor for his insolence and leads Tamino and Papageno into the temple of Ordeal.
Change of scene: The courtyard of the temple of Ordeal.
The first test is that Tamino and Papageno shall remain silent under temptation. (Duet, Speaker and Priest: “Be-ware of the wiles of women.”) The three ladies appear, and tempt them to speak. (Quintet: “How? You at this place of terror?”) Tamino and Papageno remain firm.
Change of scene: A garden. Pamina asleep.
Monostatos approaches and gazes upon her with rapture. (Aria: “All feel the joys of love.”) When the Queen of the Night appears and gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro (Aria: “The vengeance of Hell is in my heart”), Monostatos retires and listens. He tries to force Pamina’s love by using the secret, but is prevented by Sarastro, who allays Pamina’s alarm. (Aria: “In these holy halls.”)
Change of scene: A hall in the temple of Ordeal.
Tamino and Papageno must again suffer the test of silence. Papageno can no longer hold his tongue, but Tamino remains firm, even when Pamina speaks to him, and as he refuses to answer believes he loves her no longer. (Aria, Pamina: “Ah, all is lost.”) Change of scene (sometimes used as Act III): The pyramids. (Chorus: “O Isis and Osiris, what joy.”) Sarastro parts Pamina and Tamino. (Terzett: “Shall I, dearest, see thee no more?”) Papageno also desires to have a little wife. (Aria: “A little wife does Papageno wish.”) At the first ordeal, an old woman had appeared to him and declared herself his bride. She now again appears and changes herself into the young and pretty Papagena.
Change of scene: An open country.
The three boys prevent Pamina from committing suicide because she believes Tamino to be faithless. (“Soon the morning sun appears.”) Papageno also wishes to take his life, but dances merrily when the boys advise him to use his magic bells to summon the image of Papagena. (Duet: “Pa-pa-geno! Pa-pa-pagena!”)
Change of scene: Rocks with water and a cavern of fire.
Men in armor lead in Tamino. (“He who wanders this road of difficulty.”) Pamina arrives and is overcome with joy to find Tamino, who is now allowed to speak to her. Both pass unscathed through the final ordeal of fire and water with the help of the magic flute. The scene now changes to the entrance of the chief temple, where Sarastro bids the young lovers welcome and unites them. (A scene in which the traitorous Monostatos appears with the Queen of the Night and her ladies to destroy the temple is frequently omitted.)
References and external links: Plot taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.